|This has to be on the front cover of the 2011 St. Louis Rams almanac, right?|
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.
We continue the previews with the sad-sack St. Louis Rams. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:
*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Estimated cap is $124 million.*
St. Louis Rams
2011 Record: 2-14
PPG For: 12.1 (32nd)
PPG Against: 25.4 (26th)
2012 Cap Number: $120,982,904
Draft Position: #2 Overall Pick
After taking a giant step forward in 2010, the Rams took about fourteen giant leaps backwards in 2011. Early injuries, incompetent coaching, and massive regression from the team’s top young talent combined to create a nightmare season in which the Rams struggled to stay remotely competitive in the majority of their games. The biggest concern obviously lies in the future of QB Sam Bradford, who was supposed to take the next step in becoming an elite QB. Suffice it to say, that didn’t happen. Not even close. But hey, after scoring a league low 12.1 PPG, things can’t get much worse, right? Right? (Uh oh…are we sure?)
Jeff Fisher, Sam Bradford, and a surprisingly effective pass rush that got to the QB 39 times. Look, we could all see that Steve Spagnuolo was in WAAAAAY over his head. He’s a great coordinator, and maybe he’ll end up doing much better as a HC down the road. Just, not right now. That’s why getting Jeff Fisher is such a huge deal. For the first time in a long while, the Rams have a steady hand at the wheel; a guy who can consistently put his team in position to win and get the most out of his players. He worked magic in Tennessee for a long time, and he’s always been one of the most underrated coaches in the game. How he works with Sam Bradford will be the key to this whole process. Barring the onset of an understandable David Carr-like complex, Bradford has all the tools to be one of the best QB’s in the game. All he needs is protection and a decent game plan, and I’m convinced he can own his division for a decade. And hey, if Fisher can win with Vince Young and Kerry Collins…
Pretty much everything else. In lieu of naming every position that isn’t QB, DE, or RB, I’ll settle for saying that the offensive line has to rank up there as one of the worst units in history. These clowns allowed a league high 55 sacks last season! And you wonder why I find it tough to blame Bradford for his abysmal numbers! There’s only so much you can do when three or more pass rushers are simultaneously sacking you WHILE the center-QB exchange is still in progress.
Key Free Agents: WR Danny Amendola (RFA), TE Billy Bajema, G Jacob Bell, LB Chris Chamberlain, T Adam Goldberg, CB Justin King, WR Brandon Lloyd, LB Brady Poppinga, RB Cadillac Williams
3 Key Questions:
#1 – Is it really this bad?
There were a lot of times last season when things looked Detroit Lions level bad. Clearly they played over their heads two years ago, but I found it hard to believe that the roster is as fundamentally screwed up as what their performance showed. I mean, when you’re going to battle with washed up guys like Al Harris at CB, “off the street” offensive linemen, and Kellen Clemons at QB…well, I’d say injuries had a big impact. Who knows, though? Every team deals with injuries, and it says a lot about the Rams that they rolled over and died from theirs.
#2 – What do they do about Brandon Lloyd?
A quick perusal of the Rams pending free agents will likely elicit no concerns from fans of the team, as Lloyd is really the only relevant name on the list. Unless, of course, you’re worried about losing key cogs of the worst OL in the game. (I’m doubting that…) Unfortunately, the Rams cap situation is not ideal, which is practically unforgivable given the horrible talent level on the team. Of course, I feel confident in assuming that they have several crappy players of which they would be more than happy to release. The question then is whether Lloyd is worth paying. On one hand, it might be detrimental to let Bradford’s only legit target walk. Developing their talented QB is priority #1, and depriving him of any true weapons is not the best way to start that project. On the other hand, tying up large portions of the cap on a soon-to-be 31 year old WR has not typically worked well in the past. Like, almost never. In this case however, it seems that the risk of ruining Bradford for outweighs the risk of wasting a few mill on a washed up receiver. Even at his advancing age, Lloyd put together his second consecutive strong campaign, posting 70 catches and nearly 1000 yards. Considering he played with Kyle Orton, Neo-David Carr, and Kellen Clemons, I’d say that’s good work. Even if Lloyd can only maintain this production for two more years, it’s well worth the future cap hits to both give Bradford a reliable target, and to buy time to find a young, franchise WR.
#3 – Which young players are cornerstones, and which are not?
What has to be most frustrating about their 2 win season was that the team entered the year with a plethora of “name talent.” By that, I mean they had a bunch of young players that scouts thought would develop into very good to great NFL players. One year later, there isn’t much left standing from that group. Chris Long and James Laurinaitis held their end of the bargain, but most others failed. Most disconcerting was the regression of LT Rodger Saffold and RT Jason Smith (former #2 overall pick). Those two were supposed to bookend a dominating offensive line for the next decade…instead, it appears as if they might be looking for new jobs. Also troublesome has been the abject failure of any and every pick used on a WR or TE. Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, and George Salas were all part of last year’s draft class, and none of them ended up making even the slightest bit of impact.
All that having been said, it’s hard to evaluate players when they’ve received such poor coaching in their careers. Saffold and Smith each looked promising at one point or another, and it might be worth one final look to see if they can be salvaged. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of competition in their camp, and it will be interesting to see who emerges.
One emerging rumor I’ve seen on several mock drafts has the Rams trading down from #2. With Robert Griffin being such a hot prospect right now, it would honestly be very easy to make such a move. The question is, how much value would St. Louis need to pass on getting USC LT Matt Kalil? Would two second rounders do it? How about a first? Personally, I’d take nothing less than two first rounders. My reasoning for that is simple; getting a franchise LT is so important to this franchise that only a “Godfather” offer would be considered.
We’ve already detailed just how awful the Rams offensive line was last year. Above all else, priority should be placed on this unit, and the presence of a franchise LT at #2 is nothing shy of a God-send. While I don’t EVER buy into the “can’t-miss-prospect” hype, it does seem like a good omen that Kalil is being compared to Jake Long. So yeah, unless the Redskins come offering a couple extra first round picks, or Brian Orakpo, I’m taking Kalil so Bradford can finally wean himself off Zoloft.
Even if they move the pick for less than top dollar, the Rams offseason has to be considered a smashing success. The value of upgrading Steve Spagnuolo to Jeff Fisher is simply incalculable, almost as if they traded in their old flip phone for a new iPhone 4S. How many wins will that translate to in 2012? Tough to say. The cupboard seems pretty bare, so 4 or 5 seems a reasonable expectation. Then again, how many times have we seen a team like this rebound big time under the same circumstances? If they can maintain a reasonable level of health, if they can retain Brandon Lloyd and pair a solid #2 with him, if they can get increased production out of those underachieving young players, and if Bradford has a bounce back campaign, the Rams could be a sleeper in the NFC West. I know there are a lot of “ifs” in there, but it seems like we were talking about the 49ers the same way heading into last season. Again, that’s not to necessarily compare their exact situations or insinuate that the Rams will somehow win 13 games next year. I’m just pointing out that things aren’t nearly as bleak as they might seem. Given their extremely favorable schedule next season, I’d say 7 or 8 wins is definitely not out of the equation.